Some people can’t see the forest for the trees. But Antiques Roadshow stars Leigh and Leslie Keno can’t see the trees for the burl, which they first began collecting when they were teenagers in upstate New York.
"There’s an amazing burl, bigger than a watermelon, growing on the side of a tree in Central Park, and whenever I pass by, I think about the beautiful bowl it could become," says Leigh, sitting in his Manhattan townhouse one rainy afternoon. Resting on his lap is his most recent catch—a Native American burl bowl with its original, 200-plus-year-old surface intact. He caresses the baby-bath-size hunk of wood like a purring cat and admits, "I can’t keep my hands off it."
The vessel’s sensuous shape also seduces brother Leslie, who stops by on a break from his senior vice presidential duties at Sotheby’s. The special, rapid-fire rap of twins makes it impossible to tell who said what, but both agree that the "organic modern form" conjures up visions of "fecundity." The burl itself, however, is actually an irregular growth, "like a wart on a tree," Leslie explains. But in the hands of able craftsmen, the wart turns into a beauty mark.
The duo value this bowl for its outstanding design—swooping lines, raised, beveled handles that curve in, and an earthy red surface that shows its age. Besides, the bowl smells as good as it looks. "It’s a buttery-doughy-spicy scent," says Leslie, who shuts his eyes and sniffs. Add to this some killer provenance: It was once owned by artist Andy Warhol protégé Baby Jane Holzer and displayed in her Southampton home, Chestertown, built by Winterthur founder Henry Francis du Pont. "It’s a keeper," says Leigh, who nailed it at Christie’s for $180,000, a record price for American burl at auction.
As boys growing up in New York’s Mohawk Valley, the twins hacked, gouged, and scraped without much success. "Dad sawed a burl off the side of a tree, and we hollowed it out with a chisel and hammer," recalls Leslie, who, together with brother Leigh, filled the cavity with charcoal briquettes and fired it up. To keep the coals red hot, "We fanned them with a hair dryer," he recalls, while cradling the creation scarred by fire, rugged chain-saw marks, and an old bullet hole. It’s the kind of bowl only a father could love (and to his credit, Ronald Keno did).
"We spent so many hours on that bowl," says Leslie, who is shown here holding a better example as Leigh displays the bowl that the boys made—and turns thumbs-down on their creation. "Burl is harder to cut than marble. It’s tough, knotty, locked-together grain. It’s so tight that it can actually hold water. But that experience really made us appreciate burl at an early age."
Chiseling created facets on this bowl’s surface. A great original surface feels as good as it looks. Original red pigment adds value.
"Raised open handles are the best," says Leigh. "These are beveled and curve inward. The strong outline has a powerful impact."
Leigh and Leslie still vividly recall the day almost 35 years ago when the late collector DeVere Card ushered them into his inner sanctum—an attic in Hamilton, New York, stuffed to the rafters with the country’s best burl. "Les and I sat upstairs for hours examining every single piece," recalls Leigh, who now owns one of Card’s prized covered bowls (shown here).
What’s the biggest mistake when dating burl bowls? "To attribute the more primitive, rough-hewn pieces to Native Americans," says burl dealer Steven Scott Powers, author of North American Burl Treen (burlsnuff.com). "American Indians were highly skilled woodworkers, and their bowls are well-proportioned and more refined than those of European colonists," says Powers, who has examined hundreds of early ladles and bowls. "European settlers in America didn’t have a tradition of hewing their own burl bowls. They didn’t know how to work with burl."
In Europe, burl was usually reserved for decorative veneer and then only for the finest furniture. To see for yourself, Powers suggests a visit to Winterthur (winterthur.com), where Henry Francis du Pont’s burl bowls are currently displayed in the house museum’s courtyard. But the mother lode resides at Old Sturbridge Village, where an appointment is necessary to view the burl. Or view the collection online (osv.org).
Photography: Bryan McCay
Produced by Leslie Keno and Leigh Keno